'Lovers of Modena': Two Ancient Skeletons Buried Holding Hands Were Men

Two ancient skeletons buried holding hands were both of men, researchers have revealed.

In 2009, archaeologists discovered the remains in the Italian city of Modena. The pair were dubbed the "Lovers of Modena" by the media, the assumption being that they were a heterosexual couple.

However, a team of Italian researchers has now concluded that the remains represent two males who were deliberately buried holding hands, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

While it is not clear exactly what the relationship was between the two individuals—whose remains date back to between 1,600 and 1,400 years ago—the researchers speculate that they could have been relatives, soldiers, or possibly even lovers.

"At present there are no other burials of this type," Federico Lugli, first author of the study from the University of Bologna, said in a statement. "In the past, several graves were found with pairs of individuals laid hand-in-hand, but in all cases it was a man and a woman."

While it cannot be discounted that the two men were indeed lovers, the social attitudes of society at the time—dominated by Christian religious restrictions—means it was unlikely that those who buried them would have chosen to highlight this relationship if they were aware of it, the researchers said.

"In late-ancient times it is unlikely that homosexual love could be recognized so clearly by the people who prepared the burial," Lugli said. "Given that the two individuals have similar ages, they could be relatives, for example siblings or cousins. Or soldiers who died together in battle: the necropolis in which they were found could be a war cemetery."

Even though we don't know the nature of the relationship between the pair, the researchers say that the burial is significant for our understanding of the funerary practices in Italy during the period of Late Antiquity.

After the initial discovery, the scientists were not able to determine the sex of the two individuals with absolute certainty using traditional analysis of the bones because the skeletons were in a bad state of preservation. Furthermore, even genetic testing provided inconclusive results.

So for the latest study, the Italian team turned to an innovative technique which involved extracting proteins from the dental enamel of both individuals. This test looks at two kinds of protein called AMELY, which is only found in males and AMELX, which is present in both sexes.

Analysis of these proteins indicated that both individuals were, in fact, male—a conclusion that was confirmed by comparing the results to 14 modern and archaeological control samples.

"The innovative approach of this paper is applying mass spectrometry techniques to ancient samples," Lugli told Newsweek. "It demonstrates that proteins besides DNA became a powerful tool in understanding past human biology."

The researchers say the latest study proves that this technique could be beneficial in a variety of related fields.

"The success of the analysis method we used represents a real revolution for this type of study," Antonino Vazzana, another author of the study from the University of Bologna, said in the statement. "This technique can be decisive for paleoanthropology, bio-archeology and even forensic anthropology in all those cases where the poor state of conservation of the remains or the young age of individuals makes it impossible to determine sex on an osteological level."

This article was updated with additional comments from Federico Lugli.

Lovers of Modena
Remains of the so-called "Lovers of Modena." University of Bologna